Nonprofit Branding: As Penn State Demonstrates – You May Not Control Your Brand

Were Penn State’s logo police a bunch of errant bullies? OR did they have valid reason to suppress the similar logo of an obscure little high school 1,400 miles away?

A few years ago, in an excess of brand-protection fervor, mighty Penn State landed with both feet on her little Texas high school. Among less important branding adjustments, it forced Mary Lou to modify the tattoo on her backside.

Today the stakes are much higher. The university faces a real threat to its brand. In this tragic context we find irony in the story of the way it treated Mary Lou, her backside and her high school.

When this amusing story was originally posted it asked the basic question: which institution was right….the high school or the university. And why?   In combination, the story, the question and the answer form a critical professional lesson for nonprofit marketing folks.

We start the conversation by urging you to come to terms with two elusive branding concepts:

1) Your brand is not your logo. It is not your mission statement. It is not any trademarked or copyright-protected intellectual property. In fact, your brand is not anything created within your organization.

2) Brands are the accumulated impressions and beliefs that determine people’s thoughts and feelings about your organization’s work and its achievements. Your brand is lodged out there in the collective mind of the public. It evolved – and it exists – in a space beyond the direct control of your organization.

Your brand is an intangible and elusive little devil. Over time you can influence it, nurture it, nudge it in a different direction, embellish it a bit and perhaps – as Penn State must now attempt – you can rehabilitate it if it gets damaged. But, since your brand is essentially public perception, there is no realistic way for you to control it.

Nevertheless, your organization’s brand may be its most valuable asset. Protecting that brand is one of your biggest challenges. That responsibility has many elements. This blog is designed to help you deal with them.


This is a saga in two parts. You are reading Part One. Resolution comes next week, in Part Two. Now consider the David and Goliath anecdote that caused concern over Mary Lou’s tattooed butt….

AN IDENTITY CRISIS was imposed on Penn State, home of the mighty Nittany Lions. The threat originated far away in Buna, a small Texas town near the Louisiana border. Years earlier the students at little Buna High fashioned a school logo featuring the big cat in all its menacing glory.

A few decades passed. Life was peaceful in Buna, Texas. But in 2009, somebody at Penn State noticed Buna’s logo is similar to the university’s Nittany Lion logo. The war began.

The following differences in scale establish context:

  • Penn State has 44,400 students. In grades 9 through 12 there are 387 kids entitled to call themselves Buna Cougars. 387! That is about the number of students in a class of Psych 101 at Penn State.
  • The university’s annual operating budget is $1,888,867,000 – almost two billion dollars. The annual budget of Buna High School, home of the Buna Cougars, is less than Penn State spends on football uniforms for the Nittany Lions.
  • Penn State’s faculty numbers about 9,000 – more than four times the number of residents in Buna, Texas.
  • To further put this thing in perspective, realize that the two schools with similar logos are 1,400 miles apart!

Nevertheless, university administrators were fearful. What if some Splendid Doofus got all confused and thought Buna High School was actually Penn State?

Traumatized by Buna’s threat to the institution’s brand, university logo-mongers pulled up the institution’s drawbridge, locked its doors and called the lawyers. They prepared the institutions mighty resources to STRIKE!

The legal posse attacked. Buna was stunned. Buna was outgunned. The War of Logos was short. Buna rolled over. The university prevailed. A legal settlement was reached. The Buna Cougar was quietly euthanized. Penn State no longer had to feel its identity was threatened.

The Buna-Penn settlement agreement: a nondescript cougar relative would replace the original Buna logo – a distant-cousin feline whose generic features could not be confused with the mighty Nittany Lion.

  • Buna’s athletic teams needed new uniforms.
  • Cheerleaders had to buy new logo-sweaters.
  • School stationary was reprinted.
  • Logos on school walls and the gym floor were painted over.
  • And the gal in the photo at the top of this pose, Mary Lou, (Buna High School class of 2009 and runner-up Home Coming Queen) was forced to have the local tattoo artist modify the Buna Cougar on her butt.

The few who have been privileged to see the altered image now argue about whether the distortion of Mary’s cougar made it resemble a large bird or a small Buick. Either way, they agree the revised tattoo is in compliance. The tattoo on Mary Lou’s behind no longer threatens the identity of mighty Penn State. (Rumors about a classmate named Kimberly have not been confirmed. Kimberly moved to Fort Worth in time to escape the Wrath of Penn.  She may still sport the Buna Cougar/Nittany Lion logo.)

With the possible exception of Kimberly, all representations of the original Buna mascot are consigned to the logo-landfill. When this process was accomplished, life returned to normal in the little Texas school, as it did at the mighty university located 1,400 miles away in College Station, Pennsylvania.

Penn State’s Brand Patrol had again triumphed.


Your organization’s brand is one if its most valuable assets. Its logo is the graphic representation of that brand. So now we identify the basic questions raised by this fracas:

Were Penn State’s logo police a bunch of errant bullies? OR did they have valid reason to suppress the similar logo of an obscure little high school 1,400 miles away?

I have already taken too much of your time with this post. The answer to the above question, plus your introduction to the Ptomaine Palace Pizza Shop, will be found in the next post. It is titled: Continuation: Buna Vs. Penn. Were the university logo police a bunch of overzealous clowns? 

(Confession: I know you are wondering. Yes, Mary Lou is imaginary. As is her pal Kimberly. But the rest of the Buna High School story is essentially true. That’s why the lesson it illustrates is important to nonprofit brand managers.)

BOTTOM LINE: The bottom line for this post is does not appear until the second installment. It will show nonprofit executives how this incident has implications for their own organization and career.


PERSONAL NOTE:  As a former university vice president and secretary to the board of trustees, I can’t tell you how appalled I am by the current Penn State situation.  But I can tell you this crisis will be studied for years as an example of a short-sighted attempt to protect a brand – an attempt that predictably backfired. We’ll let the situation settle down a bit and then the Nonprofit Branding Blog will examine the 2011 crisis in search of additional lessons.


3 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: As Penn State Demonstrates – You May Not Control Your Brand

    • Thanks for the comment. This is only the first part of the story. The conclusion posts next week – on Tuesday, if I stay on schedule. It poses this question: Were the Penn State logo police a bunch of overzealous clowns? OR were they right to suppress the logo of an obscure little high school 1,400 miles away?

      The answer contains a lesson each nonprofit executive must learn. Better to learn it from a blog post. I had to learn it the hard way!

  1. Pingback: Nonprofit Branding Blog | Nonprofit Branding: Sandusky. Child Abuse. Penn State – Lessons From a Toxic Soup

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